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Two trains heading in polar opposite directions rarely meet on an equal playing field no matter the circumstances. That may be the case as the Phoenix Suns (13-26) host the Oklahoma City Thunder (29-8) in the teams second meeting this season.

History Lesson

This has been a match-up that has seen runs of dominance by one team for two different stretches. The Suns won four of the first five head-to-head match-ups and the Thunder have taken seven of the last eight. Most recently the Thunder dominated the Suns for four quarters in Oklahoma City 114-96 on the last day of 2012. Happy New Year!

Head-to-Head

Suns: 106.2 PPG (six wins)

Thunder: 108.8 PPG (nine wins)

Durant vs. Suns: 25.6 PPG 6.1 RPG 44.4 FG%

Westbrook vs. Suns: 20.5 PPG 7.9 APG 47.2 FG%

Traditionally the Thunder put up points on the Suns as evident by the match-up earlier this season. As individuals Durant is average against the Suns (if that is even possible) as they are the 14th best defense he faces in terms of points, 8th best team on the boards against him, and force him to shot the 3rd worst against them. They can D-up Durant, but most of that data comes from the Grant Hill Era.

Westbrook on the other hand torches the Suns to a tune of scoring the 10th most points against the Suns, dishing out the 5th most assists, and shooting the 3rd best against them. Basically these games can become the Russell Westbrook Show in a hurry.

Storyline

Alluding back to the trains mentioned before. The Suns train is rolling with a head of steam towards the 2013 NBA Draft Lottery Show while the Thunder are eying a return trip to the NBA Finals. In the short five year history of the Thunder (not including the Sonics here on purpose) the team has two wins in the NBA Finals, only two less than the Suns over the span of 45 seasons.

This stretch of games might lead to Lon Babby and Lance Blanks reevaluating their roster and making some moves here soon.

Although the team has been losing a lot as of late -- two wins in thirteen games -- they haven't been embarrassed often. That may change tonight as the best team in the NBA comes to town and may be looking to make a statement on the road after a close call the other night.

With only two games over the next nine days the front office may be looking at this game as a tipping point. After all, they are already talking trades that have been made public.

The Thunder are a team that attacks with their two headed monster of Durant (28.6) and Westbrook (21.8) who keep defenses on guard all game. They are balanced with opportunistic scorers like Serge Ibaka (14.3), Kevin Martin (14.3), and Nick Collison (5.9).

Starting Line-Ups

PG - Goran Dragic v. Russell Westbrook

SG - Shannon Brown v. Thabo Sefolosha

SF - P.J. Tucker v. Kevin Durant

PF - Luis Scola v. Serge Ibaka

C - Marcin Gortat v. Kendrick Perkins

Potential Suns Inactives: Jared Dudley (Right Wrist)

Potential Thunder Inactives: Serge Ibaka (Chest) and Thabo Sefolosha (Neck)

Key Match-Up

Wesley Johnson vs. Kevin Martin

Yeah, not what you would think, right? Let me explain.

With the Suns devoid of Dudley the team will be leaning more on Johnson to give the team a scoring boost off of the bench. On the season Johnson has compiled 23 Did Not Play Coaches Decisions and as of late has played well since getting some playing time due to injuries and unattainable comeback deficits.

As for Martin the Thunder are a different team when he scores the ball. On the season with Martin scoring 18+ points the team is 10-1 and when he is held to single digits, 5-3, both above .500, but obviously they are most beatable when Martin is held in check.

Interesting Stat: 38.3%

Last season that is the total percentage of points Scola, Dragic, and Martin combined to score for the Houston Rockets. They were also the top three scorers for the team in that order. All three are in different roles, on different teams, heading in different directions. The NBA is a fickle fraternity.

Meaningless Stat: 24.4 PPG

Apparently even NBA superstars suffer from the weekend hangover including Durant who scorers a "Day Worst" 24.4 points per game on Mondays. Small sample size of five games, but on every other day that ends in Y the Durantula averages AT LEAST 25.8 points per game. So there is that.

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Michael Beasley has been in and out of he Suns' rotation in the last several games, getting a few minutes in one game and then riding the pine in the next.

Beasley was on the thinnest of ice s a result of his horrible play. But when Jared Dudley had to sit out against Chicago, Beasley found himself right back in the rotation and playing significant minutes.

With his Suns -- and possibly his NBA -- career on the line, Beasley delivered. The enigmatic forward hit 10 of his 14 shot attempts for 20 points, and also pulled down six rebounds in about 21 minutes of playing time. But was his strong performance Beasley turning a corner? Or did he simply get hot? After watching each of his possessions a handful of times, I believe it was the latter.

Beasley took 14 shots and turned the ball over five times, for a total of 19 possessions used by Beasley. For those with short attention spans, just read the headlines and look at the pretty pictures. For the rest of you, let's take a look at each one.

Beasley's Possessions

Second Quarter, 7:45 Mark - Isolation Turnover

Beasley's first touch comes on the left wing. Beasley crosses over and drives middle, but he can't get past his man, Jimmy Butler. Instead of pulling it out or passing to a teammate, Beasley tries to rise and finish over Butler and loses the ball out of bounds in the process for the turnover.

Second Quarter, 7:29 Mark - Hand Off Made Jumper

Sebastian Telfair starts the possession with the ball on the left side, while Beasley waits on the weak side. Bassy swings it to Luis Scola at the top of the key, and Beasley circles around to take the dribble-hand off from Scola. Butler goes under Scola instead of staying tight on Beasley, and in essence the hand off turns into a screen. Beasley rises up and knocks down the open shot, but has a toe on the line.

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Second Quarter, 4:00 Mark - Hand Off Made Dunk

The Suns get the ball inside to Marcin Gortat, and Beasley cuts behind Gortat, losing his man and taking the hand off for the explosive dunk. He finished it with a half pull-up and could have been called for a technical, but it was pretty nonetheless. This is a play we run for Shannon Brown at least once a game, and I really wish we would use it more.

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Second Quarter, 3:25 Mark - Spot Up Turnover

Telfair drives and kicks it out to Beasley. Beasley was the last one down the court and was open at the top of the key. He gets a little excited though and shuffles his feet while trying to drive down the lane an is called for the travel. Turnover number two.

Second Quarter, 2:55 Mark - P&R Roll Man Made Jumper

Beasley sets a screen for Bassy, and gets the ball on the roll. He tries to drive baseline, but again can't get past Butler. So Beasley pulls a sweet drop step into the lane then pivot back move and hits a tough turn-around fadeaway jumper from about 10 feet.

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Second Quarter, 1:35 Mark - Off Screen Made Jumper

Beasley begins the possession by setting a screen for Brown off the ball. On the screen Beasley's man Luol Deng turns his head for a second, and Beasley pops out to the 3-point line. Beasley gets the ball, and as Deng tries to recover he gets caught on a Gortat screen. Beasley steps in and away from Deng for the rhythm 18-foot jumper and sinks it.

Second Quarter, 1:20 Mark - Transition Made Dunk

This play was really made by Bassy, but Beasley ran the floor and got rewarded for his effort. Bassy deflects a pass and tracks it down for the steal, and Beasley takes off and beats everyone down the floor. Bassy hits him in stride and he throws it down for his second dunk of the game.

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Second Quarter, 0:45 Mark - P&R Ball Handler Made Jumper

Beasley catches the ball on the wing an runs the pick-and-roll with Gortat. The defense gives him space, and Beasley steps into an open elbow jumper. Two points.

Second Quarter, 0:08 Mark - Isolation Missed Layup

Beasley runs off a screen to get open and take the in-bounds pass at the top of the key. He beats his man (Deng on this play) and avoids Kirk Hinrich who is trying to set up for the charge, but as he tries to go up and finish Beasley gets swatted by Joakim Noah. When Beasley gets to the basket, there is still five seconds left on the clock. He also has three defenders around him, meaning two guys -- in this case Telfair and Gortat -- were wide open. Instead, Beasley challenges a very good shot-blocker in Noah and pays the price.

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I can't fault Beasley's effort here. There wasn't much time and he took it strong to the basket. It just wasn't the wisest decision in this case. Gortat also could have made it easier on him by following Beasley on his drive and getting closer, instead of hanging back at the elbow. However ...

Second Quarter, 0:02 Mark - Offensive Rebound Made Layup

Beasley is fortunate. Noah keeps the ball in play on the block, and Beasley is able to grab it and make the easy bunny with time to spare.

Fourth Quarter, 11:12 Mark - Isolation Missed Jumper

This shot was probably Beasley's worst decision in this game, and it was vintage Beasley. Beasley brings the ball up the court, and as he goes to call a play Deng goes for the steal. Beasley spins past the gamble by Deng and dribbles forward ...

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Only to pull-up a step inside the 3-point line instead of pressing the Suns' advantage. The result? Total brick with 17 seconds on the shot clock.

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Fourth Quarter, 8:55 Mark - Isolation Made Jumper

Beasley Isolates on Deng at the top of the key and tries to drive left. Deng stays in front of him, so Beasley rises up and hits a really tough pull-up jumper over the 6-foot-9 Deng. This was a pretty bad shot that just went in.

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Fourth Quarter, 7:22 Mark - Hand Off Turnover

This was a good play that was ruined by a miscommunication. Gortat gets the ball at the elbow, and Beasley runs past him and takes the hand off. Taj Gibson switches over to Beasley, but Beasley is still able to turn the corner and get to the basket. He draws the help defender, leaving Markieff Morris open under the basket. Both players recognize their advantage, but just aren't on the same page. It looks to me like Morris pointed up, calling for a lob pass, and then prepared to jump.

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Instead, Beasley throws a bullet pass that bounces off Morris' hands/chest and out of bounds for the turnover.

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Fourth Quarter, 7:00 Mark - Post-up Turnover

This was simply a horrible, horrible call by the referee. Beasley tries to post up and the ref calls an offensive foul. Nothing happened.

Fourth Quarter, 5:25 Mark - Hand Off Missed Jumper

Beasley takes another hand off from Gortat, this time on the other elbow and going to his right. Instead of driving he pulls up for the long two and misses.

Fourth Quarter, 4:05 Mark - Transition Made Dunk

This was the play of the game for Beasley. He runs the court and Bassy hits him out on the perimeter. On the catch Beasley gives a very slight head fake, and it's enough to get Hinrich the leave his feet.

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That allows Beasley to blow by him and throw down a ferocious one-handed dunk.

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Fourth Quarter, 3:05 Mark - Post Up Made Jumper

Beasley begins this possession by setting a screen for Bassy, and he receives the ball as he rolls out to the corner. Beasley backs Daequan Cook down a couple dribbles, then kicks the ball back out to Bassy as Hinrich showed for the double. Beasley holds his position and gets the ball back near the elbow. With the shot clock under five seconds, Beasley rises up and hits a fadeaway jumper over the shorter Cook.

Fourth Quarter, 2:30 Mark - Isolation Turnover

Beasley gets the ball on the wing, drives to his right, and loses the ball when he tries to rise up -- for a shot or pass I don't know.

Fourth Quarter, 2:00 Mark - Isolation Missed Jumper

Beasley catches the ball in the corner, surveys the court for a second and decides his best option is to jab step and rise up for a contested 2-pointer from 3-point range. There was only five seconds left on the clock, but it was still a bad shot. At least get behind the line.

Summary and Conclusions

There is no doubting that Beasley had a very good game, possibly his best as a Sun. He was the team's second-leading scorer (behind Scola's 22), contributed on the boards, was +8 for the game and scored nearly half the team's points in the second quarter. If he continues to play like this, then we may finally have found the guy the Suns thought they were getting back in July.

However, looking at each of the plays, I don't think Beasley played all that much differently than he has been. The difference was that his shots went in. He still took a lot of mid-to-long range jumpers (nine of his 14 shots were of this variety) and didn't get to the free throw line even one time. Beasley continues to rely on a jumpshot that has proven to be unreliable so far in his Suns career.

Beasley is simply not an isolation scorer. He's just not. He's not fast enough nor does he handle the ball well enough to beat people off the dribble, and he doesn't draw contact. Beasley isolated six times in this game, shooting 1-4 with two turnovers. In every other play type, he was 9-10 with three turnovers (one of which was the bogus offensive foul call). Please, please, please stop isolating Michael Beasley. Doing so is setting him up to fail (a large part of this is on Beasley himself an his decision-making, but the coaching staff deserves some blame as well).

Beasley did very well taking hand-offs in this game, going 2-3 from the field with that miscommunication turnover on an otherwise good play. Get Beasley moving and use a big man to create some space for him. Hand offs, screens and post touches are the only way Beasley is going to be effective. We need to run plays for him, because if we let him play free he's going to take a jumper. That's all there is to it.

Beasley needs to be a finisher, not a creator. In that role, he'll be less reliant on jumpers and the jumpers he does get will usually be better looks with a better chance of going in. Beasley is a guy who can get hot in a hurry and go off at any time. But for that to happen, he needs to see the ball go in the basket a couple times.

What will we see from Beasley tonight? I have no idea. If I was a betting man I'd put my money on Beasley playing like he normally has this season. I just didn't see much reason to believe he has started to get it in this game. But if he can carry over some confidence from this performance, and not only shoot better but start to play to his strengths more, he might be still salvageable.

Oklahoma City 102, Phoenix Suns 90 As far as wins go, Saturday’s 97-81 shellacking of the Chicago Bulls might be as sweet as they come for the Phoenix Suns in 2012-13. The victory was the...

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Center of the Sun: A Week In Review 01/07 - 01/13

It was a long grueling week on the road for the Phoenix Suns (13-26) as they managed a few highs, met a milestone, and saw some new lows.

Game Recaps

@ Milwaukee Bucks - L (108-99)

@ Boston Celtics - L (87-79)

@ Brooklyn Nets - L (99-79)

@ Chicago Bulls - W (97-81)

Some good before the bad.

The team was in all of the games this week going into the fourth quarter of every game on the road down by less than eight points, staying within striking distance with good defense.

The question becomes pretty simple about the teams "improved" defense as of late. How much are they sacrificing on offense and how much improvement has there been overall on defense? In three of four games the opposing teams scored less than 100 points, in three out of four games they had more possessions than their opponents, and they slowed things down to a halt, purposely.

On the other side of that in all three losses the opposing team shot over 45% from the field and found a way to score in limited possessions with efficiency.

In terms of points allowed this was easily the best four game stretch on the road only giving up 93.75 points per game. Normally the defense yields 104.1 points per game on the road. Small tweaks have been made and fundamentally they are doing some things better, but the defense as a whole is not a great unit and remains in bottom five of the league overall.

Key Stats

88.5

On the season the team averages 95.5 points per game and 94.8 points per game on the road, but during this stretch of four games they hit a season low in producing points. The 31.6% shooting from three (19 made), 42.0% from the field, and 67 total turnovers really hurt any consistency from being formulated.

The defense is not fixed, but it is improved, primarily because the offense was a sacrificial lamb in the efforts.

The Highs

Anytime you can win your franchises 2,000th win, always, or at least in the case of the Suns, take six cracks at it until you can finally break through! Deflating loss after deflating loss the Suns fought though the adversity to become the fourth fastest team to 2,000 wins in NBA history. They are the 10th team to reach that mark, but are the "newest" team in that regard playing between 1 and 22 less total seasons than the other teams ahead of them.

A high amongst lows, but a landmark high nonetheless for the team.

The Lows

Unfortunately Jared Dudley went down with a strained right wrist, missed the last game on the trip, and is questionable for tonight's game at home against the Thunder. Without Dudley the team will likely start Shannon Brown again and utilize Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson more.

He has been the best all-around player on the team for a few weeks now and is instrumental in winning games against the good or the bad of the league. Getting Dudley on the court sooner verses later has to be a major priority if the team has any chance at a push in the standings.

Practice Report

All road games check back next week!

Grades

A look at three different players on the Suns for the week forming a good, bad, and a surprise either way each week.

A- for Jared Dudley: He missed the last game on the road trip, but was the teams most consistent player in three losses, which means a lot of different things. Dudley did a good job mixing it up rebounding, distributing, and scoring while being a consistent defender on the perimeter.

D+ for Shannon Brown: The team needs a one-on-one scorer in spots that can come in and score in bunches. For the most part that has been Brown, but shooting 13-35 in four games hurt the team on the road.

C+ for Marcin Gortat: Getting back to what he does best was a good sign for the Suns as Gortat grabbed 46 rebounds and blocked 8 shots. Once he starts doing that with consistency he can become a top tier center in the league again.

Player of the Week:

Luis Scola - 15.5 PPG 7.75 RPG 2.25 APG 49.0 FG%

When the team claimed the former Houston Rockets forward off of Amnesty Waivers my initial thought was, "great, they got their go-to scorer for this year and he is worth at least 10 wins to the team." That was not to mean he is a great player that will lift the team to an amazing season, but that adding Scola means 35-40 wins rather than 25-30 wins. He has not been used in that capacity with consistency this season, but there is little doubt that when the ball funnels through the crafty forward the team is at their best.

This week in particular he was the catalyst in their only win, the most consistent guy on the court, and proved my theory correct.

In the long run Scola is not in the teams plans past next season, but he has easily been the teams best offensive weapon thus far. That does not say much as the team is second to last in the league and sitting on 13 wins in 39 contests, but beggars cannot be choosers and Scola is the teams best offensive option. Period.

His craftiness on the block gets the other team in foul trouble, frustrates opposing front-courts taking them out of the game mentally, and is the balancer in a slower paced game. If the team wants to slow it down to limit the defenses ability to lose games, then giving it to the slowest player on the court is the best option.

Previewing the Week Ahead:

Monday, January 14th vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (28-8)

Thursday, January 17th vs. Milwaukee Bucks (19-17)

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The Phoenix Suns finally snapped their losing streak with an impressive win on the road against the Chicago Bulls last night. Still, despite ending on a high note, this wasn't a very good week for the Suns who went 1-4 overall, and at times appeared to be on the brink of a total collapse.

However, there were still certain players who were giving their all and trying to keep the team competitive even when things were looking bleak.

Here's a look at this week's player rankings the way I saw them:

1. Marcin Gortat

Weekly Average: 11 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocks in 35 minutes of play

Gortat is quietly playing consistent and efficiently even while the Suns continue to struggle. Although Dudley is getting most of the attention it seems for being the Suns most consistent player as of late, Gortat is impacting the game in a variety of ways and averaged a double-double for the week which is good enough to get the top spot.

2. Jared Dudley

Weekly Average: 14 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists in 35 minutes of play

Dudley had another really good week, and really could be considered as a tie for first place with all that he does for the team. Even when he struggles to score (like going 6-17 against Boston) he finds a way to make an impact (like his 10 rebounds in the same game).

3. Luis Scola

Weekly Average: 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assist in 29 minutes of play

Scola is becoming one of the main faces of this team now. I'm not really sure if that's a good thing or not, but there's no denying that he is one of the most consistent and efficient offensive players on the team, and also does a pretty good job at rebounding for a guy who can't jump. Another very good week for Luis.

4. Goran Dragic

Weekly Average: 12 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal in 31 minutes of play

Dragic seems to be struggling a little more than his stats let on, and I think it has a lot to do with his frustration with his teammates and in losing so many games. I do believe Dragic would register more assists with better shooters and scorers around him, but he's not shooting the ball very well either...and that's all on him.

5. P.J. Tucker

Weekly Average: 7 points, 4 rebounds in 25 minutes of play

Tucker is now a starter on the Suns...whodathunkit? It just goes to show how important consistent hustle and effort are, and how rare of qualities they are in your average NBA player. Tucker's stats certainly don't reflect his importance to the team, and they never will, but the guy battles out there every night and seems to be trying to improve offensively as well.

6. Markieff Morris

Weekly Average: 6 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 assist in 18 minutes of play

Morris is quietly becoming our best bench player these days and seems to be doing a much better job of scoring inside rather than taking long jumpers. More importantly, Markieff is defending well, getting his hands on the ball, and blocking shots. I don't think he gets as much credit as he should, but he's been playing pretty darn well lately even though the team has been struggling.

7. Sebastian Telfair

Weekly Average: 6 points, 2 assists, and 1 rebound in 16 minutes of play

Telfair is struggling with his shot lately (going 7-19 on the week), and the second unit has also struggled with him running the point this week. Let's hope he gets back to being that spark off the bench that helped the Suns so much earlier in the season.

8. Shannon Brown

Weekly Average: 9 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal in 22 minutes of play

Brown has been very inefficient offensively (16-44 overall for the week) and his three point shooting continued to be awful (1-5), but thankfully he stopped attempting so many of them this week. However, what really hurts the team is his lack of defense, and his tendency to try to bring the ball up-court rather than letting Dragic run the offense...which more often than not results in a bad possession. Brown can do a lot of things to help this team if he can just learn to play within himself.

9. Michael Beasley

Weekly Average: 7 points, 3 rebounds in 10 minutes of play

If not for last night's aberration against the Bulls (and yes, it will remain an aberration until he can string together more than one of these games every couple of months), Beasley certainly would have been at the bottom of the list once again. One game does not change things, but let's give Beasley credit for at least having one good game this week and helping the Suns to beat a very tough opponent on the road that nobody thought they had a chance against.

10. Jermaine O'Neal

Weekly Average: 4 points, 3 rebounds in 12 minutes of play

O'Neal has really been struggling as of late and I'm not sure what the cause is. He was staggeringly inefficient in the low post for the week going only 8-24 overall...yuck! And while offense certainly isn't his main focus, he has to be able to convert at a higher percentage when shooting between 0-10 feet from the rim. More importantly, his defense and rebounding has also regressed. Let's hope this was just a bad week and not a sign of things to come.

So there you have it...Feel free to voice your opinion in the comments below!

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